We need to cut the crap and get real about racism

Dear President Trump,

Towards the end of the first day of the Undoing Racism workshop last Thursday the group was asked to define racism and after about 15 or 20 minutes of listing lots of different ideas, we were given the People’s Institute’s understanding of racism. Here’s their definition:

“Racism = Racial Prejudice + Power”

Prior to this we’d spent much of the day talking about class (structural/institutional vs. individual determinants of poverty and wealth, which I covered in Monday’s and Tuesday’s letters) and power (is it collectively held? tyrannical? oppressive or liberative?). With the shift to an explicit conversation about racism it felt like the energy in the room changed, as though the end-of-the-day fatigue lifted and we were collectively re-energized.

In unpacking the People’s definition of racism, our attention was first brought to the “ism” part of “racism” and we were reminded that “ism’s” connote ideologies or ways of being. We talked about how racism is a dominant ideology and there was some anthropomorphizing of it in speaking of how it wants to control all of us, as though racism itself has consciousness and is agentic. Be that last bit as it may, it felt (and feels) correct that racism is, at its core, about power and violence, that it is dehumanizing and it seeks no consent (i.e., it is foisted on people like confusing tax laws).

We then moved to the right side of the equation and talked about how when we take apart the word “prejudice” we see that it distills down to “pre judgment,” which means judging someone or something based on pre-existing assumptions or understandings rather than on the actual attributes of the person or thing before us. Remember, Mr. President, words matter – and you can learn a lot about the human condition by unpacking words carefully and holding them up to the light.

Are you feeling confused yet (still)? Did you think that racial prejudice was the same thing as racism? I did. I wasn’t surprised and didn’t have any trouble with it when the full definition was laid out as above, but previously I had completely overlooked the power part. Before we really unpacked the power piece, though, we dissected the idea of race. We systematically ticked through all the things race is not (e.g., skin color, voice, geography, ancestry, DNA, ethnicity) and focused instead on how it’s a social construct, a specious classification system created by Europeans who would become “white” and would set “whiteness” as the pinnacle or the standard as a way of staking out power and privilege. And in the case of a young United States-to be, this racial caste system made it possible for white “Christians” to convince themselves they were not enslaving other humans because blacks were deemed sub-human, thus powering the economic engine pumping raw materials and cash crops up the food chain.

Before we ended for the day the power part was brought into focus and defined as “legitimate access to power over the systems of oppression sanctioned by the state.” It was then very baldly stated that only white people have such power and therefore only white people can be racist. Other people can hold racial prejudice but because they don’t have real access to power over these systems, they cannot be racist. Then we were left for the day with the even bolder assertion that all white people are racist, that white systems of oppression lift up all white people and essentially stomp everyone else.

May we all be safe from divisions driven by greed.
May we be willing to reassess assumptions, language, constructs that have oppressive roots and tentacles.
May we cut the crap and get real about creating a healthy, just, and equitable society.
May we be about peace and about kindness.

Sincerely,
Tracy Simpson

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